Paul Comeau: Witness to change

Beginnings

First of a four-part series of the real and imagined life of Paul Comeau (1826-1905)

What we know definitively about Paul Comeau is mostly from documented facts and a bit of family lore. Still, judging from the events that occurred during his lifetime from 1827 to 1905, it’s more interesting to consider his impressions of the political, social and technological changes that he likely would have witnessed. What issues of the day might have been discussed at the dinner table, or the local market as they unfolded? We can only imagine.

Let’s start at the beginning. Paul was born to Joseph Comeau and Marie Marguerite Chapdelaine on June 30, 1826 in St-Ours, a seigneurial community near the Richelieu River in what was then known as Lower Canada. After a career in the military where he rose to the rank of captain, Joseph likely became a tenant farmer as did many of his comrades, judging from census and parish records at the time. Paul was the 13th child of Joseph and Marguerite, and sadly the preceding three children born before him did not survive their first year. He had two younger brothers.

1831 map of Lower Canada

Lower Canada (Library & Archives Canada; MIKAN 4127087)

By 1831, Paul’s family was living near Ruisseau Laplante. His father Joseph owned property and leased 313 acres of farmland, 191 of which was cultivated. The farm produced wheat, peas, oats, barley, potatoes and buckwheat. They also raised livestock – 20 cattle, 6 horses, 26 sheep and 12 pigs.

The village of St-Ours was also growing. In 1827 it opened its own post office, and, in another decade, it will become the county seat for Richelieu, if only for a short time, later replaced by Sorel. Elsewhere in Lower Canada, immigration, primarily from England and Ireland was fueling expansion, and brought some new challenges.

In 1832 cholera arrived in Quebec by way of the Carrick, a ship that had come over from Ireland. Three days later, the first victim succumbed to the illness, beginning an epidemic that would last years. This prompted the opening of a quarantine station at Grosse-Ile near Québec, where many newcomers died. St-Ours was not spared, but the Comeau family seemed to escape harm. In 1834, between May and September, 46 burials took place in St-Ours as a result of the illness. Subsequent waves of the epidemic had a much smaller impact on the town. Nonetheless, public sentiment against immigrants grew along with the death toll in the province.

In nearby Sorel, Paul’s future first wife, Marie Françoise Mathieu, was born to Joseph Mathieu and Francoise Dallaire on March 29, 1835. Her baptism took place in the recently-built St-Pierre church in Sorel. She had four older brothers.

Next: Les Patriotes

by Janet Comeau, May 2018

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